When we are able to meet for church services without any limitations, I wonder if the condition of Leader’s Neck will return too.

Habits are hard to break, especially when formed for seemingly good reasons. Mothers flinch at a baby’s squawk even when their own children are adults. Football fans used to seeing their team lose still expect the worse when a sovereign wealth fund transforms a club's fortunes. Even so, when a church leader attends an event with sung worship for which they have no responsibility, they can’t help twisting their head round during those times.

Senior leaders in a church are used to sitting on the front row at their own church, with a congregation of people they love and care for behind them. It is one of the most precious times of the week, as its enforced absence has reminded us. It is when God’s people gather to praise their Maker and Saviour, to encounter God and hear from Him, to herald the coming Day when people from every tribe and tongue and nation will surround the Holy One’s throne and sing their thanks and awed praise of Him with a song that will never end.

It is also a moment filled with potential feedback. A good leader wants to know how the people in their care are doing. Attendance can be a measure of this, so who is here and who is not is a weekly internal drama for the leader. Are the couple with the troubled marriage singing passionately or are they as far from God as they seem from each other? Has the recently-ill member been able to attend, leaning physically and spiritually on those around them? Is the family who seemed so keen and promising on their first visit last week going to come again? From these questions, others swiftly flow. Are all the important practical things happening as they should? Has the choice of songs encouraged the church in their faith and love for God, reminding them and healing them after a week of challenges and pain? Are the leader’s own children behaving?

For weeks which have become years, the leader has asked these questions and sought answers by turning round, however briefly, during times of singing. It is the moment most likely to reveal the congregants’ hearts, as well as giving answers to those other questions. This becomes so habitual that leaders do it even at events for which they have no responsibility. I understand it, and I think that it risks more than a pain in the neck.


The scene on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8) is perhaps an ironic mark of Peter’s future calling to leadership in that his response to the unprecedented revelation of Christ in His glory was to ask if some tents should be made. Rather than focusing on what was going on before him, Peter thought of other things. Pastoral concerns may feel a more legitimate distraction than practical things but they are still to be placed in the category of “Not as important as what is going on before you.”

On another occasion, Martha faced many leadership challenges as her home became the centre of the world’s attention when Jesus visited and a crowd came with Him, expecting to be fed sooner or later (Luke 10:38-42). To compound her problems, her sister did nothing but sit at Jesus’s feet, looking at Him and listening to Him. To how many leaders could Jesus’s response to Martha’s complaint about Mary's behaviour be made? “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”

The church, let us not forget, is the bride of Christ. Do we have the magnetised focus on our husband that the bride does in Song of Songs? “His mouth is most sweet, and he is altogether desirable. This is my beloved and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem.” (Song of Solomon 5:16)


Many church leaders, myself included, will have spent time privately in worship before a church service begins, so maybe they can be excused for not being as exclusively focused as I’m suggesting they should be. It’s also worth acknowledging that leaders who have an intimate relationship with God might not need as much time to re-fix their gaze on Him, and may even be able to switch quickly from one thing to another.

My own challenge is usually to not use that precious time of communal singing to get last-minute inspiration for my sermon. I try at those moments to keep in mind the advice of an older church leader who lamented seeing preachers buried in their notes when they could be singing. His observation was that they were far more likely to bless the congregation if their heart’s flame of love for God had been rekindled by singing wonderful truths about Jesus. Sermon preparation matters but preacher preparation matters more.

I think this applies to leader’s neck syndrome too. Of course we must get answers to the pressing questions asked above, we must know how those we are leading are doing. But in fact we risk making things worse by turning around. So many of our people stumble into our gathering places with urgent questions of their own after a week or toil and temptation. Is God good? Is He glorious? Is He worthy of praise and attention? Are there pleasures forevermore at His right hand, or should we seek them elsewhere? Surely if they see the back of us as we press in to enjoy God, they will be enticed forward? Surely only by doing this can we be the examples that Hebrews 13:7 and 1 Peter 5:3 promise them that we will be?

One day, just before that never-ending time of praise begins, every church leader will give an account to the Lord for their stewardship of the flock that put was in their care (Hebrews 13:7). I write that with fear and trembling. No doubt many of the questions we’ll be asked will relate to those practical and pastoral issues in every leader’s mind at a Sunday gathering. But it would seem from Jesus’s comment to Martha that one issue matters to Him more than any other. Not for nothing did He ask Peter three times, “Do you love Me?” before calling him to “feed My sheep” (John 21:15-17).

The fatal mistake is to believe that busy-ness, even when the work is worthy, is an acceptable substitute for personal passion for God. Perhaps also the ease with which we can usually do the former gives us comfort when the latter is hard for a season when our hearts are being tested. If a leader’s love grows cold, if the worries of life choke them, if their habits of prayer and praise become entirely focused on the needs of others rather than the beauty of God, everyone in their church will suffer. The church will be led into loving God by someone who no longer does. This would seem melodramatic if there were not so many examples of leaders failing morally, which almost always happens because their faith and love have been compromised. You cannot serve two masters, nor be married to two husbands.

Maybe we’ve just got the architecture of our gatherings wrong, and this disruption is a chance to change that and have less of a front/back, all-facing-the-same-way dynamic. But all leaders should note that it’s our hearts that are at risk, along with our necks, if we allow this habit to twist us.


Photo by Sonder Quest on Unsplash